Pain and Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga

by Feb 17, 2012

It seems lately that there has been some debate about the perils or otherwise of practicing Yoga. I thought it might be worth giving my view as a practitioner of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga for close to 20 years.

Guruji was always very upfront about pain in the Ashtanga practice. Basically, he said that if you do this practice, there will be pain. He was also adamant that if you breathe correctly you will never injure yourself. So, there is pain and then there is injury and the one does not necessarily lead to the other.

In the first 3 or 4 years of practicing I was always carrying an injury of some sort. I am a slow learner, but eventually the message got through and I learned the value of Ujjayi breath combined with Dristi, Bandha, and softness in my practice. Throughout this period, I never stopped my daily practice and I do not see the injuries I had as a negative. There were lessons I learned that I never would have without them.

The pain is still there and again I do not see it in a negative light. Instead, I learn what I need to from the pain. The biggest lesson is to listen. Pain is there for a reason. It is your body sending you a message and that message is about limits. Each of us has a limit that our bodies will go to and we must respect that limit. Sure, we are looking to expand those limits but with respect and compassion. Listen to what the pain is telling you because if you don’t, you will hurt yourself.

An important aspect of the Ashtanga practice is the flow of energy. Each of us has blockages in our bodies through which the energy struggles to flow freely. Our practice is about opening the blockages and we do this by working with pain. Not pushing through pain but dancing gracefully with pain.

Pain is an important sign post to what is happening in our lives as well as our practice. The pain I experienced in the early years of my practice caused me to completely change my posture. Things I could get away with before I started Yoga became impossible. This still happens today. If I put my body under stress in my life, and if I am experiencing emotional stress then there will be pain. In fact, most of the pain I experience now is as a result of stress, emotional and physical in my life.

Many people don’t make the connection between emotional stress and physical pain although it probably causes us more physical pain than anything else in our lives. Emotional stress leads us to breath badly and affects the carbon dioxide-oxygen balance in our bodies, causing muscular tension that can be very debilitating. It has been suggested that many difficult to treat problems such as sciatica, oos and fybromyalgia are in fact the result of oxygen imbalance, a psychosomatic result of emotional stress*.

Pain deepens my understanding of every asana. As I said, I have never stopped my daily practice because of pain or injury. Instead I work every day to discover a way to practice that heals. This is why I love the dynamic nature of my practice. I move and adjust in every asana to find out where my body should be in it, always paying close attention to breath, bandha and dristi. My experience over the years has been one of periods of building my practice to a point where injury, or life, or emotional crises break the practice down and then re-building again. A few times this has meant going from practicing Advanced A series to doing Standing Postures only. Each period of re-building has been one of huge development and learning.

Pain teaches compassion for myself and for others. It teaches humility in knowing that I have limits and that I have to approach every practice with no expectation that it will be the same as the one before. It teaches me patience and an understanding of this being a lifetime’s effort. Maybe others can learn these lessons without this dance with pain. I know for myself, that pain is an essential teacher.

* To find out more about this idea check out Dr. John Sarno at

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